This is the story of how I fell in love with math, then grew to hate it, and then finally came to love it again.
I started loving math at a very young age, ever since my mother taught me to count (in both English and Spanish!) When I was in kindergarten, I used to watch a math-related show called Square One TV that introduced me to concepts that at the time were far beyond me – fractions, square roots, algebra, the Fibonacci sequence, infinity. It fascinated me, and I soaked it all up like a sponge.
Once I started school, that’s when things really took off. Math was like an infinite fountain, and oh was I thirsty. And the ones who lifted me up to that fountain so that I could drink from it were my teachers. I was lucky to have teachers every year who encouraged me, challenged me, inspired me, fostered and cemented my love of learning.
The one who most inspired me most was Mrs. Poss; she was my teacher for 9th grade Honors Algebra II and again for 11th grade Honors Analysis, as well as the organizer of the math team. Every day I looked forward to her class (even though I occasionally resented how much she made me work and wouldn’t let me off the hook). Mrs. Poss loved math. You could see it in her eyes. You could hear it in her voice. You could feel it in the air. She floated, sometimes almost bounced, around the room as she led us through new, uncharted territory in our minds – and nobody got left behind, because just as Mrs. Poss loved math, so too did she love her students. Her classroom was where we knew we were welcome, where we knew we could grow, where we knew we could succeed.
I remember coming to her one day in 9th grade, convinced that I had finally figured out how to divide by zero. Rather than brushing me off and saying “no, that’s impossible”, like it would have been easy for her to do, she smiled, and said “show me.” When I made my argument to her (which, for the math nerds, basically involved looking at the slope of a line that gets more and more vertical), she smiled even more brightly, and said, “Congratulations. You just discovered limits. You should look into calculus – I bet you’d love it.” There were two results of this. First of all, I went to my local library and checked out “Calculus Made Easy”, and as predicted, I loved it. But more importantly, that moment was when I first thought:
“I want to become a math teacher.”
I graduated high school and entered college as an applied math major, excited to take my love of math to new heights. But when I went to class, something felt different. Something was wrong – very wrong. I was no longer in a warm, inviting classroom with teachers who taught, but in a cold, stoic lecture hall with professors who … well … professed. There was no excitement. There was no beauty. There was no passion. There were only formulas not to forget, calculations to carry out, exams that were exhausting instead of exhilarating. And the worst part is that I believed it was my fault, that I really wasn’t good at math after all. In fact, I hated math. I ended up switching majors to International Affairs and Japanese which, while somewhat interesting, never brought me that same kind of joy as I trudged through the remainder of my four years.
Once I graduated from college, I started applying for jobs, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But as I went from cube farm to cube farm, I knew something was missing. I came to work, clocked in, got whatever the boss told me to done, clocked out, went home, and then did it all over again the next day. Nothing I was doing gave me any sense of purpose. I was just a cog in a wheel. And as a result, these jobs didn’t last very long, whether that was a voluntary decision or an involuntary one.
At some point, while I was particularly frustrated with my job search, I came across a tutoring center that was looking for a math tutor, and I decided to at least give it a shot. But when I began my first session with a couple of students who were addled by algebra, something inside me clicked that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I was in my element. I was excited. I was happy. I was falling in love with math again, but this time from a new perspective. Now I was the guide, helping my students forge paths, cross bridges, maneuver mazes, and climb to new heights. I remembered hearing my teachers talk about that fabled “light-bulb moment”. Well … that moment was real. And it was addictive. I had to have more. There was nothing that had ever been as fulfilling as getting to know my students and getting them from “huh?” to “aha!” With every student who came by my table, I realized more and more that this was what I wanted to do – no, what I was meant to do. From that point on, I focused myself in earnest toward that dream I had once had:
“I want to become a math teacher.”
And now here I am. It’s been a tough journey, and I almost lost sight of my path. But now that I’ve once again rediscovered that path, I’m going to follow it wherever it takes me. And more importantly, I’m going to help my students find their own paths, and do everything I can to help them along the way.
So why do I teach? I teach because I want to be for my students what my teachers were for me. I want to encourage them, to challenge them, to inspire them, to foster and cement in them a love of learning that will last a lifetime.
The Gift Giver
Joe Murphy, Vanderbilt University
To unsettle and alloy that bewilderment with joy
To allow flight and provide an unseen scaffolding of support
To hold tightly while letting go
To correct with precision and warmth
To reveal mysteries and provide ladders for climbing to understanding
To challenge, to exhort, to demand
To push, to pull, to carry
To build, to empower
To respect and acknowledge, to ennoble
To place one’s own heart on the altar and one’s own hands in the fire
To remember the forgotten
To feel, to share
To dance in celebration
To pass into the shadows
Bill Shillito teaches math at AJA Upper School.